Nursultan Nazarbayev: Kazakhstan's authoritarian moderniser

Astana (Kazakhstan) (AFP) –


Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled Kazakhstan for almost 30 years and turned the Central Asian country into an energy powerhouse while governing with little tolerance for opposition.

A close ally of Russia's Vladimir Putin, the 78-year-old also counts former British prime minister Tony Blair among his admirers.

Coming to power in 1989, peasant-born Nazarbayev was the last leader of an ex-Soviet Republic whose rule began during the USSR.

Kazakhstan's gleaming futuristic new capital Astana, built in the years since independence, symbolises Nazarbayev's drive to put the country on the map.

But in recent years, the oil-rich country has seen growing social discontent, with an economy still recovering from an oil price plunge in 2014.

This year, Nazarbayev sacked his government for what he said was a failure to fix the economy.

- A shepherd's son -

The son of a shepherd, Nazarbayev trained as an engineer before rising through the ranks of the Kazakh Communist Party to head it and the country in 1989.

He was elected to the new role of president on the eve of the Soviet breakup in 1991.

Since then, his power has become absolute, with resounding, but internationally-criticised election victories in 1999, 2005, 2011 and 2015.

In the most recent poll in the largely Muslim country, which still has a significant ethnic Russian minority, he won more than 97 percent of the vote.

His term was due to end in 2020.

But rights activists say that Nazarbayev's support was the result of propaganda, reinforced by crackdowns on the press and the internet.

- Praise from Putin, Blair -

The longtime leader projected himself as a guarantor of stability at home.

He strived for a similar image abroad, remaining a close partner to Russia while engaging with the West and accommodating the growing economic interests of China in the region.

Nazarbayev offered his country as a site for talks over the Ukraine crisis and hosted international talks aimed to bring peace in Syria.

Putin has called Nazarbayev "the most prudent" leader in the post-Soviet space, while Blair, who has acted as a paid advisor to the country's government, credited Nazarbayev with "subtlety and ingenuity" in a promotional video that aired in 2012.

The economic success story of Kazakhstan in the early 2000s and Nazarbayev has not been without other murky subplots.

In 2015, the president's former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev apparently committed suicide in an Austrian jail.

Aliyev was married to Nazarbayev's eldest daughter Dariga until 2007, but he publicly fell out with the Kazakh supremo that year and went on to author a tell-all book on the ruling family.

He was found dead in his cell while awaiting trial in Austria for the murder of two Kazakh bankers.

He had been convicted in absentia on multiple counts in Kazakhstan, including plotting to overthrow the government.

- Nation's 'father' -

Nazarbayev, who bears the honorary title "Elbasi," or "father of the nation", is ubiquitous on state television and billboards across the country.

He has embraced grandiose projects, transforming Astana from a sleepy provincial town into a glitzy metropolis with buildings designed by internationally-renowned architects.

Ahead of the 2015 election, Nazarbayev hinted that he had considered stepping down.

"I have received thousands of letters asking me to put forward my candidacy," he mused, before adding: "Perhaps it is time for a scene-change?"

He later announced he had decided to stand again to tackle the economic challenges.

Nazarbayev married his wife Sara in the early 1960s.

Of their three daughters, Dariga, 55, is an MP and is considered the most politically influential.

The husband of his middle daughter Dinara, oil baron Timur Kulibayev, had previously been mentioned as a potential successor.